First Women of San Francisco

Last week my husband and I flew to San Francisco, into that rarefied air that can only be California. Our first stop was San Francisco, or the polyglot that columnist Herb Caen used to call Baghdad by the Bay (back when Baghdad had a romantic aura about it). As we traveled around the city, several First Women asserted themselves into my reflections —as strong women are wont to do.

On our way to Grace Cathedral, where we are always rewarded with inspiration, we walked to the cable car CABLE CARwaiting only a few blocks from our hotel. Little did I know that inspiration would strike even before we reached the Church. We secured a seat on the cable car, relatively easy to do on a Sunday morning outside of tourist season. The iron bar that reaches down to clamp the ever-rotating cable, giving the cable car conductor control over when the car halts and lurches forward, was only a few feet from my own hands. The wooden handle was polished from years of firm grips and I could almost see Maya Angelou, the first black woman to be a San Francisco streetcar conductor. I could visualize that determined young woman gripping the wooden handle with her gloved hand, and almost certainly greeting her riders as they jumped on board.

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Later, on a bus tour of the city with my brother and sisters, who had joined us in “The City,” we passed City Hall.The guide did not comment on its grizzly history, when Dan White entered the building and assassinated gay activist and city supervisor Harvey Milk, as well as Mayor George Moscone. This tragedy elevated Dianne Feinstein to the position of Mayor—the First Woman Mayor of San Francisco. (Feinstein later became the First Woman Senator from California.)

DSC_0036 - Version 2 My siblings, my husband and I sailed out to Alcatraz, that infamous prison of book and lore. The tour of the prison, narrated on an audiotape by a former warden, was sobering, but the history of Alcatraz is more than the history of a prison. The ruins of an old fort still hold fast to the hillside and remnants of the Native American occupation of the abandoned island in 1969 still demonstrate tribal efforts to be heard and honored. Pictures of the occupation reminded me of Wilma Mankiller who visited the island frequently, worked in the San Francisco command post, and raised money for the cause of respecting treaty rights. She wrote in her biography that the people she met there had “major and enduring effects on me.” The lessons she learned during that nineteen months put her on the road to the position of First Woman chief of the Cherokee Nation.

As I flew away from “The City,” and back to my writing, I wondered how many other First Women it had produced.


Afterthought: This site is about First Women, but one statement on a display at Alcatraz caught my eye and pricked my focus on First Women for a moment. Frank Weatherman, known as AZ 1576, was the Last Man to leave Alcatraz. “Alcatraz was never no good for nobody,” he said on the occasion.

Maya Angelou – Renaissance Woman

           A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song. [Maya Angelou] 

Maya Angelou was the first African-American woman to. . .

–work as a cable car conductor in San Francisco

–have a nonfiction best-seller; her memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings set a record at The New York Times, remaining on the best-seller list for two years.

–have her screenplay produced; Georgia, Georgia was nominated for a Pulitzer.

–direct a major motion picture, Down in the Delta

Screen Shot 2014-04-07 at 3.21.47 PMThe most common description of Maya Angelou is “Renaissance woman.” Often this term is misused, meaning a person who has broad interests. The correct usage is for a person who has extended knowledge or proficiency in a number of fields, and Maya Angelou could be a poster child for the word. One need only consider the professions, endeavors, and awards of her life to see how well she fits the definition.

Her Professions when Young: Cable car conductor, waitress, cook, night-club dancer and performer, professional dancer with Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey

Her Experience as a Civil Rights Worker: helped Malcolm X build Organization of African American Union and, at Dr. Martin Luther King’s invitation, was Northern Coordinator for the Southern Leadership Conference

Her Artistic Endeavors: Off-Broadway actress, musician (wrote score for her film Georgia, Georgia), actress in television and movies, feature film director, producer of plays, movies and public television programs

Her Literary Accomplishments: editor of English language weekly (in Ghana), feature editor, The African Review, non-fiction author (seven autobiographies, three books of essays), creative writer (plays, movies, television shows), Poet

Her Role of Educator: Teacher, University of Ghana’s School of Music and Drama, Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University

Her Honors and awards include over 50 honorary degrees, the Presidential Medal of Arts, the Lincoln Medal, a Pulitzer Prize nomination for her book of poetry Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Die, two Tony Award nominations, for her role in the play Look Away and another for her role in the play Roots. She received three Grammy awards for spoken word and read her poem “On the Pulse of the Morning” at the inauguration of President Clinton

The word “renaissance” means re-birth and Dr. Angelou has been re-born throughout her life. In turn, she has used her work to inspire others so that we also might be re-born through the magic of her lyricism and the import of her message.


Read the biography on her official website:

Read the poem “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings:”

Locate her books:; her films:; and some of her photographs and media work: